Pat Healy talks acting, directing and taking direction from Werner Herzog

May 5, 2017
Cult film aficionado and New York resident Danny Peary covers the Tribeca Film Festival, and here’s his first report, an interview with actor turned director Pat Healy.

Pat Healy’s Take Me is a wild and witty – and a bit insane – black comedy that had its world premiere at the recent Tribeca Film Festival in April and soon had its theatrical release in New York City and Los Angeles. The Synopsis from the press notes: “Ray Moody (Pat Healy) is a fledgling entrepreneur, trying to get his company off the ground in Los Angeles. His business: the niche Kidnap Solutions, LLC, specialising in abductions that provide alternative therapy for his clients. When a mysterious call contracts him for a weekend kidnapping with a handsome payday at the end, Ray jumps at the opportunity. But the job, and his target – business consultant Anna St. Blair (Taylor Schilling) – may not be all that that they seem.”

This combination of film noir and screwball comedy, in which abductor and abductee engage in a supercharged and very emotional and physical pas de deux, is the directorial debut of one of cult actor, Pat Healy, who in this film proudly wears the ugliest wig in film history.

I was eager to speak to him about his new film, that hairpiece, and his long and fascinating career, including playing the sinister villain in Compliance, a portrayal that still gives me chills.  We found time to have this conversation over lunch at a diner in Tribeca during the festival.

After acting in forty films and many TV shows you’ve finally directed your first feature film.  Go back to the beginning of your career. You are from Chicago. Did you go to L.A. with the intention of acting or directing?

I went as an actor but from the beginning it was my goal to direct. I was acting in Chicago, working at Steppenwolf Theatre, and doing whatever movies, TV, or commercials came through town. My agency had an office in L.A., so I was able to go there in 1998, and immediately started auditioning and got roles soon after. Within three months of being there, I was cast in an independent film that got into Sundance that year. Then I worked pretty regularly guest-starring on TV shows, and getting little parts in movies like Magnolia.

You have a cult following from a number of later pictures in which you had bigger parts, so it’s surprising to me that you’ve said fans recognise you most from Magnolia, which came out eighteen years ago.

People do know me from Cheap Thrills, Ghost World, The Innkeepers, Compliance, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but Magnolia is really the one people ask me about most. Because everyone remembers the scene in which Julianne Moore comes into a pharmacy to get medicine for both herself and her husband who has cancer and I’m the pharmacist who gives her a hard time and she has a tirade. Like with Ghost World, in which I had a small part, I was only on the set for two days. I guess Paul Thomas Anderson did it the way Robert Altman did it, which was to have a rehearsal day in which everyone sat around a table for twelve hours and we all had a scene with Julianne. There was Philip Seymour Hoffman, Michael Murphy, and all these other actors, and Paul made me feel I was as important as everyone else, so I felt appreciated and gave it everything. That was a really remarkable experience for a young actor. I was doing a few commercials at the time and got an offer to be the spokesperson for something, but I stopped because I had just done Magnolia and I didn’t want to be associated from then on for pitching something on TV.

How long were you in L.A. before you wrote, direct and starred in your short, Mullitt?

Two years. It premiered at Sundance in 2001. Michael Shannon and Henry Gibson were also in it. I did two shorts actually but the other I didn’t get very far on. Someone said, “Great, what do you want to do next? Where’s your script?” The trouble was that I didn’t know how to write. It took me five years just to write the short I got nowhere with. Working on something for five years is what taught me how to write, because I had no natural skill for it. Then I wrote a script in two weeks for a feature called Snow Ponies, which is a western that is getting made now, eleven years later. Then there were ten years of writing microbudget movies, rather than writing scripts for me to direct that someone was going to finance.

You continued to rack up credits in movies and on TV. Were you getting typecast from the beginning?

I was being cast as psychos or jerks. Creeps. I felt I had an affinity for comedy but I was being cast in dramas. From a really early age, I loved Mel Brooks and Woody Allen and anyone who had anything to do with SCTV and Saturday Night Live.

I was surprised to read that you did stand-up.

Yeah, I did that from 2002 to 2004. I did fine at it, but mostly I did sketch comedy with friends. For a time, I wasn’t working and was depressed, and doing comedy live was what brought me back from my professional and personal wilderness. We started doing it at the Steve Allen Theater in Los Feliz, at the Center for Inquiry building. There was a big bust of Steve Allen in the theater, which was recently torn down. Then a group of guys asked me to do a weekly sketch show in the basement of a Ramada Inn in Los Feliz, which also got torn down. I started doing stand-up as part of that show. I mostly talked about pop culture.

Were you biding your time until something came along?

I didn’t think of it that way, but I hadn’t done a play since I’d left Chicago. Doing comedy gave me my confidence back because I’d lost it from not performing in front of audiences. Then I started working more than I ever had in my life. Within a year I made Great World of Sound [2007].

Was that a big film for you?

Yes, it was my first lead and the first time I worked with director Craig Zobel. I had been friends with its producer David Gordon Green for a long time and he introduced me to Craig and he cast me. That was a big break and while doing that I got cast by Werner Herzog in Rescue Dawn. It wasn’t a big part but I got to spend three weeks in Thailand with Herzog and Christian Bale. I took a film studies class in high school when I was sixteen and saw Stroszek, and I’d never seen anything like it and it is one of my favourite movies until this day. I’d seen many more of his films in the interim. So I was excited.

Did you flash back to when Herzog and Klaus Kinski were close to killing each other when making Aguirre, the Wrath of God?

It’s a strange thing being in the orbit of someone like that. It’s like being in a love relationship and then you step out of it and think, “Why was I ever in something so insane?” He asked me to jump into the open door of a helicopter as it took off. I hadn’t done any training or practiced it, and I’d never even been in a helicopter, but I just did it. It wasn’t till later that I realised that was a little crazy. He was also the one who clapped the board and the one who wiped the sweat off our heads, so he was in there with us and would never have us do anything he wouldn’t do himself. He was lovely, and it was a remarkable experience. And from there, I got cast as Wilbur Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James with Brad Pitt.

In your catalogue, that film sticks out as being different from anything else.

If you were to talk about a cult movie that certainly is one now. A lot of my movies that now have cults received mixed reviews when they were released and did little business. Magnolia, Ghost World, The Assassination of Jesse James are the ones I usually cite as being people’s favourites of films I’ve been in.

You are also in a number of other cult films, most notably Cheap Thrills – in which your low-life character and his friend compete by doing increasingly gruesome things for money – and Ti West’s The Innkeepers, but my favourite role of yours is the villain in Compliance.

Oh, yeah….That’s a great one. That’s the most difficult role I’ve ever done. It’s considered by some people to be a horror movie.

It was part of a little run you had making films that reached your fans – The Innkeepers and Compliance in 2012, and Cheap Thrills in 2014.

That was a great period for me. I shot The Innkeepers and Compliance a year apart but they came out almost at the same time. We shot Cheap Thrills when Compliance came out. They weren’t going to cast me in it because they wanted someone whose face they could put on a video box. There was a two-month period where the director Evan Katz – who has since become a very good friend – was fighting for me. But they didn’t want me. Then Compliance came out at the Sunshine Theater in New York and it did really well. It got great reviews and I got great reviews so I got cast in Cheap Thrills.

Your fake policeman in Compliance, “Officer Daniels,” is alone in his scenes as he talks on the phone to the people at a fast food restaurant, manipulating them into questioning and testing a pretty young waitress in sexual ways to supposedly determine if she did indeed steal from a customer, as he implies. Did you ever see any of the other cast members?

Yes. Craig thought at first that he’d keep me from them. But as a friend and good human being he realised that would be too cruel. We were on a soundstage in Bushwick – they were upstairs and I was downstairs and one of the reasons it worked so well was because we were actually on the phone with each other the whole time. But sometimes the phone wouldn’t work, so I’d have to go upstairs and say my lines to them off-camera. I’d be looking at them and would actually feel sick to my stomach. That character was hard on me. I was getting divorced at the time, which I guess was good for the movie, but there was no catharsis for me. I’m not a villain in Cheap Thrills but do villainous things and I could blast it out. Not with this. This guy was so coiled up and it was so internal. The movie is great and I’ve seen it a couple of times, but it’s not easy for me to revisit it for personal reasons.

I guess you had to ask yourself, “How am I able to play such a character?”

I am aware of a darkness inside of me, something from an early age, depression and things like that which have always been with me. Internally that stuff was going on with me but Craig wasn’t conscious of it. Here was this banal guy who was making a sandwich while giving vile instructions over the phone. He thought of himself as a guy making a huge practical joke. He wouldn’t have guts to do the same thing face-to-face. In the actual case the film was based on, the guy made the call from a pay phone in front of a grocery store and the call was four hours long without anyone there questioning what he was doing.

Did you and Craig discuss your character?

Not a lot. It came along quickly and I had to jump into it. Craig did send me an entire season of the show Cops because he wanted me to know the rhythm of how the police talk – like how they call everyone “Sir” and “Ma’am” in the most condescending way possible. Otherwise I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare for the role. So it was very important that we had done Great World of Sound, which integrated real people who thought they were actually auditioning for us. I had certain skills and had just come off of that stretch where I was doing improv and sketch comedy, and he knew this role would require some of that. We had shorthand with each other while I was talking to the other characters on the phone. I’d do some improv to get certain reactions from them.

I think that’s the film prior to Take Me in which you really have the opportunity to be creative. But in all your work, even when confronting carnivorous pumpkins in Tales of Halloween, you really give your all. You have always been a responsible actor no matter what the role.

Well, I have to be. I’m not going to say I haven’t done shitty movies or spent a lot of time on crime procedurals that I’d never watch. I paid my dues on those and learned a lot. Those are actually harder because you get the script and go in to act without prep, never having time to develop a fully realised character.  Sometimes you are handed a script and have to do a five-page monologue, and that’s a real challenge. But it does pay the bills, which means a lot. It’s a training ground for being in front of the camera but it also keeps you afloat.

You’ve done scores of movies and television. For how many of those TV shows do you get still get residuals?

Most of them. The CBS crime shows, of which I’ve done a half dozen – CSI, NCSI, Cold Case – are always playing somewhere in the world. And those are big checks. I wouldn’t make a great living, especially in L.A., but if I wanted to live off my residuals, I could.

And how many of your movies are in the black?

It’s hard to tell. For instance, I’ve never seen a dime from Cheap Thrills and I have to believe that made money. It’s been out three or four years.

Were you looking for a film to direct by the time you made Cheap Thrills?

I was front and center in that, I thought, and invested a lot of my own money to hire a publicist for the first time and to travel around the country to promote it. It did work for me. I had the reputation for doing indie and horror movies and knew a lot of people, and was getting offers for the first time that didn’t require auditions. That was great because I was forty and broke, but they were little indie things that didn’t excite me and nothing that paid really well. Then one day I was lying in a pool of fake blood on the floor of a Mexican supermarket at six on a Saturday morning, and I had to show up for another indie film at noon, which I wasn’t looking forward to. I was doing all this just to pay the bills, but it was burning me out. I had a “What am I doing with my life?” moment and told my agent that I was going to follow his advice and just stay home for a while and wait for the right thing to come along.

This was November and I had already agreed to do one more job in December, a short film called Breaker Breaker with a bunch of graduates from Brown [University] who were all in their early twenties. The director was Eric Bogosian’s son, Jack Nicholson’s daughter was the production designer and costume designer, the writer was a guy from Brown, and this twenty-three-year-old named Mike Makowsky was the producer. I did it and Mike and I became friends. Then he wrote a script and asked me to read it. I rolled my eyes because I get too many scripts that way, but since I liked him a lot I agreed to read it. But it sat in my email box for a couple of months. Meanwhile, he met with a couple of interested producers who sounded a bit shady, so I went into protective mode and read it. He never said, “I wrote this for you.” I was floored by it. I loved it. I immediately knew I wanted to act in it.

Then I talked in an excited way about it with Evan Katz and he said, “It sounds like you should direct it.” It had never occurred to me to direct something I hadn’t written. But as soon as Evan said that, I said, “You’re right.” I told Mike, “I want to direct this, too.” Mike said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” So how could I convince him? I emailed Jay Duplass and gave him the short version, saying I’d like to direct a script I liked. He asked me to send him the script and he passed it along to Mel Eslyn, who the Duplass brothers had recently hired to produce films for them. I met with her the next day and she said Yes. I offered to not direct, or to not act in it, but they thought I should do both.

Was it your intention to make a screwball-noir hybrid?

Yeah. I don’t know if I said that but I was looking at all these seventies and eighties noir films for the cinematography, and thirties screwball comedies, and thinking of films which had the tone I liked: King of Comedy, which is my favourite movie, and After Hours, both by Martin Scorsese. They are comedies that are as chilling as they are funny.

King of Comedy is also an abduction film. And After Hours is about a guy hooking up with the wrong, slightly bonkers but alluring woman.

Yes, being dragged down the rabbit hole. That’s typical of noir and screwball comedy. One ends tragically and the other ends with a kiss or wedding. Some film scholars do call them sister genres and I do see where they are related. Both genres feature a man who despite his best efforts only makes things worse for himself and everyone around him.

It’s always a man who thinks he’s smarter than he really is.

Right. That is key to Take Me.

We know immediately that Ray isn’t so smart by his choice of toupee.

I’ve always been fascinated by people who wear toupees. I was going to wear a wig because I pictured my character as having funny hair. I don’t have enough upstairs to work with so I was going to wear a wig that I was going to pass off as his hair. Then I got on the phone with Taylor for the first time and Mark Duplass. She was going to wear a wig herself because she was coming off a season on Orange Is the New Black and her hair was all fried. She wanted to have long blond hair. Mark said, “This is a movie about ‘actors,’ people performing and role playing. What if you make the wigs part of that, where it’s the characters who wear wigs not just you two actors?” So Mike and I wrote wigs into the script for both of us. For Taylor’s character a wig wasn’t right, but I kept the wig for my character. I found a $30 wig. What was interesting is that when we started screening the film, a lot of people had a problem with the movie because they just assumed we had no hair budget. They were taken out of the movie. So we put in some references so you know that we know he has a bad wig.

Was Ray someone you could relate to?

I talked before about my hardscrabble life in L.A., and though Ray isn’t an actor by profession, what he goes through to make a living is very analogous to my own life at one time. He’s too old to be playing around anymore and he’s pretending to be something that he’s not, and he needs to have his ass handed to him or he won’t survive. That’s where Anna comes in. She is sort of the manifestation of all of his problems, and a catalyst to his getting rid of them.

And he’s intrigued by this sexual female who is a little off kilter.

Right, and that confuses him. You want to know what’s going on, so you move in closer. You should be running away but you’re curious. You think you can solve the puzzle. Without giving too much away, what I like about this story, in regard to how it consistently subverts expectations in both noir and screwball comedy, is that it even subverts the romantic aspect by not giving you what you think you want. There is no sexual tension between Ray and Anna. I think back to screwball comedies. Some people refer to screwball comedies as “sex comedies without the sex” because they couldn’t do sex because of the Hays Code. Fighting became a substitute for sex. In Nothing Sacred, there’s a fistfight between Carole Lombard and Fredric March. The sizzling punch-counterpunch dialogue takes the place of the sexual tension in that 1937 film and in Take Me.

Where does this film fit into your career?

I think this was the next step in my career. It came into my life at exactly the right time and it didn’t kill me. It’s taking a lot of things I’ve done – the Everyman who gets beaten up by life, literally and figuratively, and has to move on without knowing what lies ahead – but now it’s more hopeful. Until now I’ve wanted to quit every few years. This represents where I am today.

As a film buff, how does it feel to be making movies and be part of film history?

I go back to August, when I was cutting Take Me. I was invited to Alamo Draft House in Winchester, Virginia, a small town about forty miles from Washington, D.C. They wanted to show a bunch of my movies and there I was sitting there and watching my life’s work back-to-back. It really hit me. And now there’s this.

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